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Nancy Smith

Crisafulli's Early Sine Die Understandable, Honorable

April 28, 2015 - 6:00pm

It's painful to see Steve Crisafulli getting sniped at on the Senate floor and bludgeoned in the press. If Crisafulli engineered a "surprise" end to a budgetless 2015 legislative session, Senate President Andy Gardiner engineered an even bigger surprise at the beginning.

For more than two years House leadership, including Crisafulli, has been opposed to Medicaid expansion. Speaker Will Weatherford most certainly was, and however Senate President Don Gaetz felt about it, he never took the issue up as a matter of active Senate business and never rubbed Weatherford's nose in it. They presented a united front and respected each other's priorities and differences.

Crisafulli-Gardiner has been a very different partnership.

The seeds of the session meltdown weren't planted last week or over the weekend or sometime Monday. They were watered into the Senate soil in about the second week of March, when -- completely out of the blue -- Gardiner had the Senate take up Medicaid expansion.

As Crisafulli wrote Wednesday in his letter to Gardiner, "I told you that the House could not pass ObamaCare expansion. Its not something that I can force them to pass. Its not about a single member. This is a matter of the House exercising its constitutional duty to represent those who have elected us. ..."

As the session began, everything between the leaders was hunky-dory. After AP's annual pre-session media event in Tallahassee, newspapers reported Crisafulli and Gardiner "performed like a well-choreographed tag team, as they detailed their legislative priorities ..." That five-plank list included tax cuts, water and natural resources, education, a variety of social issues and Gardiner's personal No. 1 -- helping the developmentally disabled.

Not one word about Medicaid expansion. Not even a whisper.

Gardiner's new surprise priority caused Crisafulli to ask in his letter, "If you felt so strongly about expansion, why did you not ask a House member to file a bill? Why did you not send us your bill so that we had something to consider? Why did you not ask it to be a part of the Joint Work Plan?"

In spite of the philosophical differences the majority of House members had with Medicaid expansion, in spite of the untenable position the Senate president had put him in, Crisafulli still tried to rise to the occasion -- in fact go above and beyond his obligation. Late last week he and the House sent the Senate an offer to fully fund the federally canceled LIP program, the Low Income Pool hospitals need to treat low-income patients, taking that $2 billion off the table and agreeing to consider Medicaid expansion separately.

What did Gardiner do? Basically, he told Crisafulli to go pound sand.

In spite of the Tampa Times' Wednesday editorial, "The fallout from the House Republican quitters," blaming House members' early exit for a failure to complete major legislation, the House's work ethic is unimpeachable. By the 56th day, the House had been in session 63 hours and 56 minutes in 20 days; the Senate, 39 hours, 1 minute in 11 days.

In addition, 177 Senate bills passed the Senate; 61 Senate bills passed both chambers; 140 bills passed both chambers and were sent to the governor, 81 from the House, 59 from the Senate.

Florida is after all a $75 billion business. Some 20 million people rely on it. So, year after year, the major funding decisions necessarily are made before the session begins. They have to be. But this year, allowing the Medicaid elephant into the room after the dance had started took care of that.

By gaveling the House session to a close Tuesday, Crisafullli protected the institution of the House and he protected the wishes of his conservative membership. I'm guessing the decision he made to turn the lights out was one of the most difficult of his life. No one wants something like that as part of his legacy. Yet, he would have been hard-pressed to do anything else. The only constitutional responsibility the Legislature has is to pass a budget. He knew that wasn't going to happen, the environment was toxic, and the best thing that could happen would be to walk away.

As one political observer told me, "What's (Crisafulli) going to do, stay and fight? If you get in a mud pit and fight with a pig, when you come out, you're going to look like a pig yourself, same as him. ... No," he said, "what the speaker did was the classiest and most honorable thing he could do -- let everybody get away for awhile, get some rest, clear their heads and come back later to finish the budget."

Nevertheless, a story in Tuesday's Times/Herald, "Bills aimed at helping people with special needs become casualty of legislative impasse," must have felt like death by 1,000 cuts. It suggests Crisafulli deliberately walked out on Gardiner's top priority bills, those dealing with special needs children. Anyone who knows Crisafulli finds that hard to believe, and I have a feeling Gardiner does, too.

A day later, in his letter to Gardiner, Crisafulli wrote, "You know that the things that have been said about our work together are untrue. I know you know that in your heart."

The budget planes will land by June 30, no matter what. Right now they're flying at a turbulent 5,000 to 10,000 feet. But the pilots, the professional staff of the Florida House and Senate, are the best in the business -- truly, the best in the nation and have been acknowledged as such. That's not a compliment, it's a fact.By the time lawmakers return, staff will be ready to lift them to the smooth air at 30,000 feet. They will have options both sides can accept, I'd bet good money on it.

It's too early to predict how history will remember Crisafulli and Gardiner or the eight weeks they ran off the rails over a federal program that never was as simple and positive as the White House made it sound.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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